The Armory Show Wins Big by Going Small
The Armory Show has always been a quintessentially New York affair. From its gritty beginnings in 1994 at the Gramercy Park Hotel (long before the building’s svelte Ian Schrager revamp) to its latest iteration, which opens to VIPs today, it has retained a no-nonsense focus on servicing the city’s best dealers and collectors—and acting as a major entry point to the North American market for international galleries as well.
Now in its 17th edition, the fair is on an upswing from when, like many things in New York in the years surrounding the 2008 crash, things had gotten a little out of hand. “I think a lot of people lost confidence or faith in what the fair was standing for and what direction it was heading in,” says Armory director of four years Noah Horowitz, sitting in his midtown office a week before the opening. Exhibitor numbers hit a high of 280 in 2010. That’s more than Art Basel in Miami Beach—in much less space.
In the years since Horowitz took over in 2012, a drastic culling of the herd has taken place in step with a much-needed redesign of the booths available to exhibitors. This year marks the Armory Show’s smallest edition in many years, with only 199 galleries participating. It follows with a change in thinking across the art fair landscape, which has seen directors opt for a ‘less is more’ approach to provide a more exhibition-like environment and improve sales performance at each stand.
From my perusal of the fair during install on Tuesday, stands are larger and more ambitious in their presentations than ever before. Some, like Galerie Thomas Schulte’s solo presentation of Berlin-based artist Michael Müller or Armory returnee kamel mennour’s retrospective show of French conceptual art legend Daniel Buren (he’ll be on site all week), are more worthy of a white cube than a whitewashed fair cubicle. Those who have more recently associated curatorially-driven booths with Frieze’s Randall’s Island tent, would do well to come give Piers 92 & 94 another look.
For Armory Show loyalists and New Yorkers at large, these changes may be old hat by now. But for many I spoke to in the weeks leading up to the fair—both locals and those from further afield—it’s taken until this fourth fair under Horowitz’s leadership for them to consider a return. There are ever more fairs for collectors and dealers alike to choose from when filling their calendars each year, after all.
While collector attendance remains an unknown until the doors are opened to VIPs at noon, where dealers are concerned, The Armory Show has seen several big wins in 2015. Besides mennour, L.A.’s Regen Projects, New York’s Metro Pictures, Andrew Kreps, and Galerie Lelong, Berlin’s Galerie Nordenhake, Johann König, and Johnen Galerie, and Brussels’s Galerie Micheline Szwajcer are among many who have returned or are participating for the first time this year.
Particularly strong in 2015 is the Armory Presents section of the fair for young galleries, part of a larger effort by Horowitz and his team to “create a really innovative foothold for younger galleries.” To create a successful future for the fair, he says, “It’s not just about all the big blue chip names that we’re all familiar with. It’s about creating a really interesting mix throughout the piers.”
The Modern section has been beefed up for 2015 as well. Düsseldorf’s Beck & Eggeling, which has taken what Horowitz said is the fair’s largest booth “by quite some measure” to show a wonderfully comprehensive selection of the current market favorite Group Zero, and San Francisco’s John Berggruen Gallery are among the new participants on Pier 92.
“The volume of applications we received this year was much higher” than ever before in Horowitz’s tenure, says the director. “But it’s not just about being higher. It’s about being better quality.” The increase in quality has had other knock-on effects. “As we’ve moved up the food chain in terms of better and better galleries and exhibitors, they’ve tended to take larger booths. That’s something we’ve really pushed,” Horowitz explains. Bigger booths also necessarily mean fewer exhibitors. That allows collectors to spend more time—and, in theory, more money—at each of the galleries on their respective hit lists.
A must-see on any visitor to The Armory Show’s list is Egyptian, London-based curator Omar Kholeif’s deftly assembled Focus: MENAM section. Kholeif follows Philip Tinari and Eric Shiner in curating the fair’s annual regional focus. Although this year’s project began with the intention to highlight the Middle East, the Whitechapel Gallery curator has expanded the project to incorporate artists from North Africa and the greater Mediterranean as well. “Really from the outset of that discussion it became clear that the whole notion of the Middle East is problematic to a certain extent,” says Horowitz of the section’s departure from its initial brief.
Like his two predecessors, Kholeif was given much wider sway in picking participants for Focus: MENAM than is often afforded to organizers of regional sections at fairs. “It’s not just about saying, ‘Okay, who are the 20 most interesting galleries from this region?’,” Horowitz explains. Instead, Kholeif was encouraged to identify key artists from the region and then move laterally to identify the institutions and galleries that work with those artists. Highlights from the section include Saudi artist Ahmed Mater’s Cowboy Code (Hadith) (2012) at Athr Gallery, Iraqi-born artist Wafaa Bilal’s sculpture of Saddam Hussein wearing a helmet resembling Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock at Lawrie Shabibi, and the Armory’s commissioned artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s works at Galeri NON.
Horowitz says 2015 is “by far the best edition of the fair” since he took over. But he is by no means complacent, rather acknowledging that there is yet more ground for them to cover. “I always said from the day that I took the job that it was a three- to five-year project to get the Armory back to where it really should be in the hierarchy of the major international events on the global art market calendar,” he notes. He’s confident that The Armory Show has reached a point in its layout that they can be proud of. “Where we can do more is on the programming side of things,” he says. “People have done good business, but we want to make the Armory more than just a sales platform.” Until then, let the selling begin—and watch this space for daily updates over the next five days.